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Bessie Smith in St. Louis Blues (RKO, 1929)

This guest post was written by Amy Jo Stanfill, Processing Technician in the Moving Image Section and coordinator of the Silent Film Project.

RKO’s St. Louis Blues, directed by Dudley Murphy and starring Bessie Smith, was named to the National Film Registry in 2006. This two-reel early sound short premiered in New York before the feature Bulldog Drummond in 1929.  The film was produced at the Gramercy Studio in Queens, and starred an entirely black cast. Bessie Smith makes her first and only film appearance here, for which she was handpicked by W.C. Handy to sing his song “St. Louis Blues.” Handy wrote the song in September of 1914 and said that with the song he had tricked dancers by breaking abruptly from a tango introduction into a low-down blues. One could say that Bessie in turn is tricked by the song; the music lures her back into her dancing lover’s arms, only for him to leave her to sing the blues alone.

print ad for St. Louis Blues (RKO, 1929)

The narrative of the film St. Louis Blues follows the narrative set by the song “St. Louis Blues.” The film starts with Bessie catching her lover (Jimmy Mordecai) with another woman. When Bessie begs him not to leave her, Jimmy throws her to the floor, steps over her, and leaves her there. She pours herself a shot, and starts singing acapella, right there on the floor. Bessie then carries the song down to the saloon, but not in the role of a performer on the stage – she is just a patron on a barstool. She sings alone on that stool, until a slow hum from the patrons begins to build, and the sound of James P. Johnson’s jazz piano leads us to the Fletcher Henderson Orchestra on stage.

The other patrons of the saloon join Bessie in her lament, and the voices of the Hall Johnson Choir echo throughout the hall. No one dances while Bessie sings; it is only after she stops singing that the band picks up the tempo and just about everyone – except for Bessie – starts to dance. The dancers usher Jimmy back into the saloon where he starts to dance alone, until he tricks Bessie onto the dance floor with an embrace. Jimmy dances his way to Bessie’s garter only to steal her money and throw her back to the bar, leaving her to continue singing alone on her barstool until that evening sun goes down.

 

According to censorship records, at least one state, Kansas, requested elimination of the dance scene between Jimmy and Bessie. Their dance remains in the 35mm print held by the Library of Congress.

The song “St. Louis Blues” also had a constant presence in the film Baby Face (1933), which was named to the National Film Registry in 2005. The character Chico, (Theresa Harris) sings the lyrics throughout the film, in Lily’s apartment, in the kitchen, the saloon, the train, and a boat. Chico is never accompanied by musicians nor is she on stage as a performer. The music appears as a theme for Lily (Barbara Stanwyck), without the lyrics. The music and the lyrics of “St. Louis Blues” never accompany each other in Baby Face.

While no recordings of “St. Louis Blues” appear (yet) on the National Recording Registry, Bessie Smith’s single of “Down-Hearted Blues” from 1923 was named to the NRR in 2002.

St. Louis Blues (RKO, 1929)

 

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